Teddy Boys & The Birth of The Cool: The Beginnings of British Youth Culture Part 1

Words: Chris Sullivan
Photos: Zoltar, Don McCullin

In the early 50s, the clichéd image of the sartorially rebellious and angst-ridden “teenager”, the fuel of a thousand movies, the subject of a million articles, did not exist. The term was then just a demarcation of age used to denote that ever so awkward middle ground between child and adult, undetermined mire where the young aimlessly drifted in an attempt to emulate their parents’ every nuance. Girls dressed like their mothers, boys like their dads and most looked and behaved like adults – in miniature. “Most people went to Burton’s to get the same clothes as they’re fathers,” says Tommy Roberts AKA Mr. Freedom. “They looked like little old men coming out.”

The War had left a population bereft of resources in the UK while America ruminated on the birth of consumerism. Rumblings of discontent were heard the world over, but it was perhaps in Great Britain that the most visually beguiling teenage cult of all time was to be born: the Teddy Boy. In the heady world of adolescent rebellion, it was the Teddy Boy who first strutted onto the stage and across the front pages of the British newspapers. With their meticulous mockery of upper-class Edwardian dress, they were stepping out from what novelist John Fowles called, “the grotesquely elongated shadow of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria” – and they stepped out in style, these pomaded peacocks, their open razors flashing bright against a drab backdrop of ration books, bomb sites and tram cars. With the full force of a Molotov cocktail, the first salvo in the youth war had been fired, but its origins were far from predictable.

As early as 1950, Harper’s Bazaar proclaimed “The return of the beau” as moneyed ex-guardsmen centred on the “row” to order a style known as the New Edwardian, a name that, according to social anthropologist Ted Polhemus, “served to symbolize a time when the greatness of Britain was beyond dispute and to put a check on the increasing cultural hegemony of the United States.” Led by the example of Cecil Beaton and designer Hardy Amies’ right hand man, Bunny Rogers, the New Edwardian style was, as author and performer George Melly says in his pioneering tome Revolt Into Style, “a fair symbol of class privilege.” Indeed, many a toff “ex-guardsmen” sauntered up to the Row and followed suit, ordering outfits that were the complete antithesis of the drab, post-war Demob issue, and ipso facto became the uniform of the post-war gay man. As Richard Walker says in The Savile Row Story, “The outfit featured slightly flared jacket, natural shoulders, slim waist, tight sleeves and narrow trousers; a curly brimmed bowler set atop a longer hairstyle and long, slim, single-breasted overcoat with velvet collar and cuffs completed the look.”

Dressed as such, these predominantly homosexual ex-soldiers minced around London’s West End like a gang of peacocks, head and shoulders above the eminently drab grouse.

Unashamedly flamboyant, the New Edwardian look flagrantly and bravely defied the government’s conservative post-war ethic and was viewed by many as positively anti-establishment – which was precisely why it attracted the attentions of a different breed of customer altogether, who, just as the teenager of today wants their designer mufti, so wanted the outward trappings of success. Legend has it that the look was first spotted on a routine salvo by a South London teenage shoplifting gang known as the Forty Thieves. Such young, working-class criminals saw the look as unattainable and therefore (in true teenage spirit) adopted it, not realising that their inspiration was a bunch of extremely camp ex-army officers who were as bent as a butcher’s hook. This was the first time that such youth were to be influenced by such a minority … but certainly not the last.

This seizure of the trappings of the upper classes was seen by many as a deliberate attempt by the working classes to undermine the social standing of those considered to be their betters. As far as they were concerned, they had not fought a war for nothing. They had been promised a new egalitaria and these “toffs” were deliberately flaunting society’s inequalities, and the working classes didn’t like it. Just as a teenager today will beg, borrow and steal to achieve that Gucci or Prada, so then did they. It is this ethic that has fuelled the rise of teenage fashion ever since, but it was born with the Teddy Boy.

The first rumblings of discontent were heard in some of the most hard hit areas of London’s Elephant & Castle and Borough neighborhoods, which were now little more than bomb sites and produced a street gang known as the Elephant Boys, who comprised some of London’s most able families, such as the Reyburns, Brindles, MacDonalds and last but not least, the Richardsons. They later supplied, according to former member Brian MacDonald, “the heavy mob which kept the West End gang lords in power.” Apart from being physically adept, they were also, as MacDonald states, “all snappy dressers. Suits cost roughly the equivalent of two weeks’ wages or more. They were made to measure by excellent tailors on the basis of a deposit, and some of the balance paid at each of the two fittings, with the remainder paid on collection. When the Edwardian fashion came in, it was a three or four buttoned three-piece suit without velvet collar, although this appeared on overcoats. Fashionable materials were mohair or 22 ounce worsteds in, say, clerical grey. Notable tailors were Harris and Hymie of Blackfriars, Diamond Brothers of Shaftesbury Avenue and Sam Arkus in Berwick Street.”

Yet, due to the non-existence of style magazines or youth culture per se, the New Edwardian style took a while to catch on. To add the classic Edwardian suit, due to cloth rationing, was way out of reach for many teenagers, but just as the Pachuco Zoot Suiters had defied the American cloth restrictions, so did many young Britons. Dougie Millins, then chief cutter at Cecil Gee, concurs. “Rationing meant that people had to save six coupons for a suit and weren’t allowed turn-ups.” Indeed, only those who walked on the wrong side of the tracks (such as the Elephant Boys) and earned their living from the lucrative black market could afford or acquire such extravagance. As writer Nik Cohn explains, “A proper Ted suit would cost between £15 and £20, hand made by a back street tailor, and all the accessories would double that. If you wished to make top Ted, you had to be prepared to stroll into a dance hall with £50 on your back.”

Read The Rest At: Frank 151

This entry was posted in 1950s, British Youth, Culture, Edwardian, Edwardian Clothes, Edwardian Dress, History, London, New Edwardian, Rockabilly, South London, Style, Teddy Boys, Teens. Bookmark the permalink.

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